Good News on the Economy!

In an NPR piece last week about the Japanese tsunami, somebody said that the destruction boded well for economic recovery. All that cleanup and reconstruction, you see. Perhaps some American firms can even get in on the action.

Well, yes – following the insane logic of industrial economies, disasters are good business. That’s because they can lead to what we call “growth.” Which just means money spent.

Plenty of money has been and continues to get spent, after all, cleaning up after Hurricane Karina, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and reclaiming countless streams in my neck of the woods, Pennsylvania, from decades of acid seepage from coal mines.

Someone once said that economically speaking, the ideal citizen in our society would be a terminal cancer patient who gets in a car wreck on the way to his divorce hearing.

Speaking of car wrecks, much of this problem is tied up with the extractive industries – any kind of mining, but perhaps especially fossil-fuel extraction.

For instance, it counts as a plus for the economy when we spend money to hunt for oil, to drill for it, to transport and refine it and sell it as gasoline – but it doesn’t count as a negative for the economy when that gasoline’s burned up in someone’s V-6, and lost forever.

On this count, our economy is like a shoe store that keeps selling shoes but never subtracts the cost of buying them.

The loss of nonrenewable resources isn’t the only problem, of course. The other thing we don’t subtract from “growth” is the environmental damage caused by everything we do. Dig for coal, you pollute streams — but no economist figures in the loss of the stream ecosystem. Burn the coal, you make people sick, but nobody factors in those losses – in fact, they’re counted as MORE GAINS, because … medical expenditures are economic “growth,” too!

I just read this today, in Devra Davis’ fine 2002 book “When Smoke Ran Like Water”: “The effect on the environment has to be factored into the economic decisions we make every day. We need to find some way to make the price of turning on your lights and getting to and from our jobs reflect the full and real health and economic costs of those choices.”

The idea isn’t new, of course. People have been saying for years that “externalities” like pollution need to be toted up and internalized in our economic bookkeeping.

But remember coal’s other effect, besides poisoned streams and hacking coughs: Burning coal is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide, which is the single biggest greenhouse gas. A watered-down attempt to make us take responsibility for that cost, the “cap-and-trade” provision of the energy and climate bill, was proposed in Congress last year. It never made it out of the Senate.

Weak as it was, that bill was probably the best chance the U.S. is going to have to address climate change for years. And of course we don’t have years. And so now we’re courting the biggest series of disasters of all – coastal flooding, drought, famines.

But I’m sure someone will figure out how to make money off it all.

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Everglades Restoration

The great swath of land called the Everglades never flooded before Europeans arrived. True, this 50-mile-wide, 100-mile-long section of Florida was dry in winter, then starting in spring covered with a foot or two of water. But it wasn’t flooded, in the sense that civilization means it. This was simply the way this land, most of which rests barely one good-sized alligator’s length above sea level, nourished and replenished itself.

And plenty grew there — the grass in this “river of grass,” copses of hardwoods, the cypress and mangrove swamps, all the way down to where the rivers and streams emptied into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. The Everglades supported an amazing array of wildlife, wading birds especially but also other creatures found nowhere else on the continent in such abundance — gators, manatee and more.

But flooding was what the Americans who wanted to exploit Southern Florida called the phenomenon. They couldn’t pave it and construct buildings there if the ground was submerged half the year. Nor could they plant crops there, at least the crops they wanted. So starting in earnest about 75 years ago, they built a series of canals, dams and ditches to drain this land. People moved in, and the river of grass became lawns and orange groves and strip malls. Several millennia of natural processes were shoved aside and largely unmourned.

Starting in the 1990s, Florida began to realize that shunting millions of gallons of fresh water each day out to sea wasn’t necessarily a good idea. Now there is a 30-year, $11.9 billion plan to restore as much of the Everglades’ natural flow as possible.

The state is not yet very far along in this laudable and necessary project. (It covers 18,000 square miles, after all.) Visiting, you realize how much work lies before it. Drive either of the two east-west highways bisecting southernmost Florida, I-75 (Alligator Alley) and U.S. 41, and the whole hour-plus you’ll drive alongside a man-made ditch 10 feet or more wide. Much of the land beyond might look “untouched,” but such moats effectively keep the water from going where it’s supposed to, starving the ecosystem for nutrients and habitat.

Humanity’s crude handiwork is evident even in Everglades National Park. One of its more popular features is Shark Valley, about an hour west of Miami. It’s primarily a 14-mile paved loop that’s great for wildlife-watching year-round. That’s because even in the dry season, a ditch running the length of the outbound leg of the trail holds enough water to attract gators, wading birds, turtles and more.

Without this road — which started life in the 1940s as an oil company’s survey road — and its ditch, February here would turn up a paucity of wildlife. With it, it’s an unfenced zoo.

You’re not supposed to get within 10 feet of gators, by the way, though not a few people do. Just like they stop their cars along 41 to ogle the saurians lining the big roadside ditch. Only in such an unnatural place is it so easy for so many to get so close to nature.

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Death by Hat

Florida’s Everglades are about half gone, drained over the past 80 years or so in favor of cropland and subdivisions. This is one big reason more than 90 percent of the state’s historic population of wading birds are gone, too. But a perhaps more striking reason is mentioned prominently in many of the interpretative displays you’re likely to see down there (as I did on a recent trip).

That reason: women’s hats. In the late 1800s, a fashion for elaborate feathered hats developed in the U.S. and elsewhere; some women even wore whole dead stuffed birds on their heads. (They must not have owned cats.) And the place to get the fanciest plumes was in the nesting grounds of Southern Florida.

Once, egrets and other white-feathered creatures darkened the skies and covered the boggy land; millions had been sacrificed to the milliner by the time Florida passed a law forbidding the trade. The devastation sparked the creation of the Audobon Society, which had worked for the laws, and at least two Audubon Society game wardens were killed protecting the nesting grounds from poachers (as you can learn at the Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, east of Naples, Fla.).

The law helped, but in a land as big and wild as Florida still was, it couldn’t halt poaching entirely. In fact, apparently what halted the trade wasn’t the law but, again, fashion: In the 1920s, shorter and simpler women’s hairstyles came in, ushering out big hair and the galleon-scaled hats it could hold upright.

I mention this not to tsk-tsk Edwardians, who were hardly the first (or last) to plunder nature for fashion. A couple centuries earlier, after all, North America’s beaver population was devastated because the animal’s pelt became popular for men’s hats.

I mention it, rather, because it’s all to easy to denigrate those other people for ruination of nature.

Today, it’s true, at least in the West, we’re less likely to hunt animals to extinction. But we don’t have to: We drive plant and animal species to the brink not with traps and guns, but with bulldozers, toxic chemicals and carbon-dioxide molecules that turn cool environments warm and wet places dry.

Don’t forget that  the threat to Florida’s wading birds didn’t end with the vogue for fabulous headwear. Logging soon followed, denuding the swamps of their cypress, a blow to the birds and, as before, everything else in their food web.

And today, millions of Floridians live on the  land where the birds once fed and nested. Millions more of us eat the produce grown there. Species today are dropping at an alarming rate, one our forebears of a century ago, destructive as they were, couldn’t have imagined and maybe couldn’t even have been aware of.

And that’s the worst of it: In America before the car and the petrochemical, people didn’t fully realize how fragile the natural world was, or that humanity could push it to the brink, and beyond. We do understand those things, but we’re loathe to change.

The makers and wearers of feathered hats were rapacious, indeed, but they had nothing on the children of polyester and chrome.

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Revolting Developments

Our language seems to have a built-in bias against nature.

I’m thinking of the words “develop” and “development” in their odious usages in reference to minerals, soils, plants and water.

We are told that it is good to “develop” them, as though there is something inadequate about their beauty and function as is.

An example heard much in my state of Pennsylvania these days concerns efforts to ”develop” the natural gas deposited in shale rock (the Marcellus Shale) a mile or more underground.

The gas is perfectly fine and completely fulfilled existentially where it is; to drill down and cause the small earthquake required to shatter the shale and suck the gas out isn’t to “develop” it. It’s to drain it, or exploit it — and risk the contamination of the air and water that goes along with.

Likewise, it’s said that to turn a forest into a subdivision or a meadow into a shopping center is not to “develop” it. Rather, it is simply to pave. Or, more completely described, to entomb the earth — covering it with an impermeable skin across whose surface  precipitation can bear toxins into the waterways, even as the soil so encased can no longer grow plants, provide animal habitat, filter rainwater or sequester carbon.

When an organism develops, it reaches its full potential. When we “develop” nature, we are instead usually preventing it from fulfilling its proper role. (The same misuse is typically made of the word “grow,” especially in reference to “economic growth.”)

To borrow a metaphor from the age of the photographic darkroom, those who think they are busy developing are not getting the big picture.

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State of the Union

On the bright side, Obama didn’t talk about exploiting America’s reserves of oil and natural gas. And one of his examples of entrepreneurial role models was some guys building solar panels. But those were about the only bright spots environmentally speaking in the State of the Union address.

Interestingly, there wasn’t a word about conservation, something that Obama has rightly emphasized in the past. That’s understandable: In a society whose economy is driven by how much we consume — effectively, how wasteful we are — conservation is a tough sell when employment is high. With unemployment officially at 10 percent (and in reality much higher), talk about burning less gas and cutting down fewer trees would have gone over only slightly better for Obama than hocking a loogie into a presidential-seal coffee mug.

Still, it’s distressing. His most concrete proposal in “green” terms was one about putting a million electric cars on the road. Electric cars are a very expensive way to, if all goes well, do a little less damage in the way we get ourselves from here to there. Even if the million-cars goal were achievable in his time frame — and it’s probably not — I can’t get excited about something that’s going to have us guzzling more electricity, especially if that electricity is likely to come from fossil fuel (which, at the rate we’re going, it is).

Even worse was the latest nod to “clean coal,” which is a myth-and-half and a dangerous distraction from the very important task of drastically reducing (and eventually eliminating) our consumption of this dirtiest of fuels. Perpetuating the canard of clean coal only prevents us from the only sane goals: reducing energy use and developing renewable sources to power what we truly can’t do without.

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Efficiency and Conservation

The two concepts are often spoken of as if they were a unit, or even nearly synonymous. But a decent working definition would identify “efficiency” as getting more out of the same resources, while conservation is simply using fewer resources, period.

The difference is not so much a matter of technology (or lack of technology) as one of intent. I can strive to keep all the lights in my house on all night efficiently by switching to better lightbulbs. Conservation would be turning the bulbs off when I’m not using them. Efficiency is trading in my Ford Navigator for a Prius; conservation is biking to work.

An article in the Dec. 20 & 27 addresses the problem. “The Efficiency Dilemma,” by David Owen, illuminates the debate over the so-called Jevons paradox. The paradox, first identified by a 19th-century British thinker, holds that when we learn to use a resource more efficiently — coal, timber, water — our consumption of it does not go down. It goes up, because the resource becomes cheaper to use.

This would help explain, for instance, how society has spent the past half-century making electrical consumer goods more efficient even as electricty use continues to skyrocket. Each kilowatt hour is so cheap we keep finding more uses for it, and don’t have to think twice. From no air-conditioning to central air; from one refrigerator to two, or three. Each of them with ice-makers.

Owens’ caution is to folks like Energy Secretary  Steven Chu, whom Owens quotes as saying that efficiency can save us money and resources (and pollution, of course), and do it all painlessly.

Here’s where it comes back to intent. It seems that in many if not all cases, people (as a whole, and over time) view efficiency as a license to use more, not less. The reason is that their intention was never really to burn less coal, for instance. It was to maintain their standard of living more cheaply, or raise their perceived material wealth at the same monetary cost. But this invariably means the cost to the environment goes up.

As Owens points out — a point made repeatedly on this blog, among other voices – if our goal is to actually conserve resources, the resources have to cost more, not less.

That means, say, big taxes on carbon or other stuff we don’t want burned, or released into the water, land or air. Using less is conservation — the happy result of which might well be drives to improve efficiency, even if things don’t work the other way around.

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Rare Considerations

We like to think we can “innovate our way” out of the environmental crises (for there are indeed more than one, not just climate change). But this is simply more of trying to solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it. Here’s another example why inventing new technology (mostly so we can keep using other, older technology) is just going to dig a deeper hole.

I found it in a recent article titled “China’s Rare Earth Monolopy,” by Olivier Zajec, a French strategic-intelligence consultant. The key point is that everything we call “high tech” is utterly dependent on 17 rare-earth metals, so called because it’s necessary to sift through a lot of dirt to get enough of them to use – stuff you’ve never heard of, like neodymium and europium.

Zajec’s emphasis is on the fact that China has an effective monopoly on the stuff. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s willing to suffer the environmental consequences of mining and processing rare earth, and willing to sacrifice the health of its workers: The process uses harmful chemical and leaves behind radioactive waste. Other countries, including the U.S., have largely abandoned the field because China simply supplies rare earth too cheaply to compete.

But from an environmental perspective, two paragraphs from Zajec’s article are even more interesting:

“The rare earth metals are a group of 17 elements whose unique properties have made them increasingly sought after by new hi-tech industries. They are used in lasers, mobile phones and LCD screens. They make possible the latest generation of touch screen devices such as iPhones and iPads. New green industries also depend on them: power cells for hybrid cars, solar panels, low-energy light bulbs and wind turbines all rely on rare earth metals such as neodymium, lutecium, dysprosium, europium and terbium. They are also used as catalysts in oil refining. …

“Worldwide demand for rare earth elements is growing by more than 10% a year, and has risen from 40,000 to 120,000 tons over a decade. US, Japanese and European industry is already unable to do without them. As Cindy Hurst recently put it in a report for the US Department of Defense (DoD): “Without rare earth elements, much of the world’s modern technology would be vastly different and many applications would not be possible. For one thing, we would not have the advantage of smaller sized technology, such as the cell phone and laptop computer.” As a general rule, the more innovative the industry and the more hardwearing, light, small-sized and eco-friendly the product, the greater its reliance on rare earth elements. Take the car industry for example: Simply to produce the batteries for its hybrid Prius car, Toyota needs 10,000 tons of rare earth metals a year. And the advent of green industries could see annual demand rise to 200,000 tons; there are several hundred kilos of rare earth metals in a single large wind turbine.”

So the very inventions that most people are relying on to make us “greener” – faster computers! Hybrid cars! Solar cells! – are in their manufacture rather toxic to the planet too. And as the case of the wind turbines emphasizes, we’re not talking about small quantities of this stuff.

This might not mean, for instance, that shifting to renewable energy sources still isn’t better than continuing to use fossil fuels. But it does mean such switches are no free ride for the environment. And it means that making that switch would, in the short term at least, relying heavily on China – a country whose environmental record is such that many people in large cities wear surgical masks to breathe.

Zajec’s full article was distributed by the Agence Global news service.

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Gas Holes

An AP report this week announces that gasoline consumption in America “is at the start of a long-term decline.”

The premises in the article, by Jonathan Fraley (identified as “AP Energy Writer”), appear sound, and Fraley even quotes esteemed historian Daniel Yergin and the National Resources Defense Council. But even if all the premises pan out as predicted, it would still be no better than a highly qualified plus for the environment. Maybe not even that. 

Here’s the trends Fraley identifies. One, cars and trucks are becoming more fuel-efficient. Two, the government is mandating that more ethanol be used as fuel. And three, people are driving less.

But look closer. More fuel-efficient? The new fuel-efficiency standards require that in 2012, each carmaker’s fleet must average 30.1 mpg, compared to 27.5 now. In 2016, the number rises to 35.5. That might save some gas per car, but in environmental terms, it’s pathetically small, and comes years after it would have really helped. (It’s the first mandated increase since 1990.)

Ethanol? Oy vey. Fraley says that by 2022, biofuels — mostly ethanol from corn — will account for one-fourth of all fuel. But it’s been definitively demonstrated that turning corn into fuel takes up nearly as much energy as the fuel produces. The process also raises the price of corn used for food — and of other food, which it makes scarcer because more land is used for corn. And because the corn is grown mostly on industrial-scale farms, it compounds our already terrible problems with nutrient runoff, soil erosion and habitat loss.

Driving less? Well, maybe. But Pittsburgh’s parkways are still jammed tail-lights-to-the-horizon inbound in the morning and outbound at quitting time. Most people over age 16 don’t even leave their house except in a car. (And internal-combustion engines, aside from being hugely inefficient, emit most of their pollution from a cold start, so it doesn’t matter as much that you’re driving 10 miles instead of 15 as it does that you’re still driving.)

Put it all together. Even though, as Fraley notes, U.S. gasoline consumption has declined four years running (admittedly, during a gihugic recession), the upshot is that “[b]y 2030, Americans will burn at least 20 percent less gasoline than today, experts say.”

Swell. But even at that estimate would provide only a sliver of the reductions in greenhouse gasses necessary to alleviate climate change. As Fraley says, “emissions of carbon dioxide will grow more slowly” — not actually shrink.

And of course we’d still have all the other problems of a totally automobile-dependent culture, including the billions spent to build and widen roads. That would further damage wildlife habitat and ecosystems like wetlands that provide critical environmental services, while facilitating poisonous runoff into our waterways. 

Bonus fun fact: Fraley notes that even though we might be driving less a decade hence, the government projects that the number of cars will actually grow by 27 million, or about 12 percent.

Even after those four years of declining gas usage, Americans are still using 344 million gallons of gas a day. It’s by far the world’s biggest gas gluttony, in absolute terms and per capita both.

Gas holes are where the gas goes, so the gas holes can go further. Until there are far fewer of them, and until they’re no longer people’s default vehicle, our transportation system isn’t going to be much help in addressing our systematic destruction of the planet.

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Life on Earth vs. Sparkly Dishes

 While our culture tends to place too much emphasis on individual initiative in the face of society-wide (and even global problems), some things just get to you.

 Heard a report on NPR last week that started by describing a mysterious problem some households were having with their dishwashers. Seems the dishes were coming out spotty.

 Why was this on the radio? It turns out the cause of the complaints was that some states have banned phosphates in dishwashing detergent. Phosphates are the ingredient that make dishes shine, apparently. But when your dishwashing water reaches the river, phosphates do something else: They cause algae blooms, sucking up all the oxygen and effectively making large areas of these bodies of water uninhabitable for other forms of life.

 Here’s the part that got me. One woman NPR interviewed said, first, that she “wasn’t sure she believed” that phosphates kill rivers. (OK – decades of scientific research must be wrong on that one. She “believes” differently, which is the new evidentiary standard in a country where most people don’t accept that evolution happens.)

 Then, better yet, the woman tells how she got her dish sparkle back: Now she goes to the hardware store, buys sodium phosphate, and like a junior-high chemist mixes it into her detergent.

 So here’s a case where government acted responsibly, and on an appropriately large scale, to eliminate one large source of a pollutant that’s doing a lot of harm. And this person – and I’m sure there are more like her – threw it all over so she could be sure to see her reflection in the flatware.

It reminds me of some poll results I heard a few years ago, that something like half of American surveyed said they wouldn’t even go to the trouble of changing a light bulb to conserve energy (a move that would save them money, too).

Set aside the far-reaching legislation we need to reduce our contributions to greenhouse gasses. If so many people feel the need to circumvent a common-sense law that creates only a minor inconvience – if they think sparkly dishes are more important than life on earth – there really isn’t much hope.

Arguing otherwise too often feels like trying to teach a fish to breathe algae.

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Unintended (But Predictable) Consequences

Here’s a recent BBC report on a disturbing and instructive phenomenon: Conservation measures in one country leading to environmental devastation in another:

Basically, it’s about black-market lumber from Nepal going to India.

You have to read down a ways to get to the likely cause: India is expanding its forest preserves but not reducing its demand for timber. So now the wood comes from a country that has less protection for its forests.

I was reminded of one of the historical conservation success stories cited in Jared Diamond’s great book Collapse. Starting in the 17th century, Japan began to experience deforestation. So the government began enforcing strict limits on the lumber harvest.

It largely worked – but because the government also worked to limit domestic consumption. (Though Diamond also sagely notes that in terms of other kinds of resources – fish, deerskins – the Japanese did not abate their consumption, instead trading for these things with the hunting people known as the Ainu, and in this way soon depleted their land and ended the Ainu way of life.)

But antique Japan is the exception, not the rule. This is the joy of the globalized economy: globalized destruction. Imported oil, imported minerals, imported food; and indirect destruction, like the bulldozing of Amazonian rainforests to make room for feed lots for beef for American tables.

Just because you can’t see the planet exactly where it’s dying doesn’t make it any more alive.

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